Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 30 Palestinians and three Israelis, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the Islamist militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.
A 13-story residential Gaza block collapsed after one of several dozen air strikes. Late into the night, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with near-constant Israeli strikes.
Israelis ran for shelters in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.
For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.
The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.
There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks alongside his defence minister and military chief.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence … their blood is forfeit.”
Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.
The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech that Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”
Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”
The White House said on Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem “must be a place of co-existence.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily news briefing with a statement about the situation, saying that President Joe Biden’s primary focus was on de-escalation.